Wednesday 28 June 2017

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

With a decade to go before the dawn of the 20th century and 400 years after Columbus set foot on American shores, the United States was at a crossroads. By 1890, the period of Westward expansion was over: the 1890 US census announced that the last lands of the frontier had been settled. Any farmers looking for new property were forced to head north into Canada, where homesteads were still available until 1914. For the majority of people, cities provided the only means for a living. American society began the shift from agrarianism to urbanization, with all the associated ills. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better off to retreat to the suburbs on the cusp of city borders, leaving the inner cities in squalor... A process reaching its apotheosis after the Second World War. At the same time, an economic depression struck in 1893 when railway companies shuttered due to over-servicing of the market, taking investment banks down with them and rippling throughout the economy. Nevertheless, immigrants continued to arrive in droves, to the tune of 13 million over the course of the decade.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his landmark "Frontier Thesis," outlining the theory that the American collective psyche was shaped and identified with the concept of the Western frontier. Turner argued that the process of expansion into new territories with their own natural and societal challenges required nascent Americans to abandon non-functional European institutions, including its aristocracies, churches, forms of government and hereditary entitlements. The movement West encouraged an ethos of individualism, self-reliance, and republican democracy, with consequent mistrust of the systemic authority of government and science, as well as an antipathy towards art and a commitment to the use of violence to resolve conflict. Americans found greater utility in ad hoc measures suited to the immediate environment, from vigilance committees to new religious movements. Until the admission of Utah as a State in 1896, the US government had been waging a protracted political struggle with the Mormon church, which had effectively established theocratic rule in the territory. It's been said that the United States has never seen a heresy it didn't like, and the frontier environment was ripe for the formation of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.

The closing of the frontier marked a major collective psychological crisis in America. One response was to retreat into a newly fashioned mythology about the settlement period: the invention of the "Wild West." Buffalo Bill Cody debuted his first "Wild West" show in 1883, the first cinematic Western - The Great Train Robbery - premiered in 1902, and in 1897, Charlie Russell moved off the ranch and into the artist's studio to chronicle the passing era. Another response was to engage in overseas expansion. 1893 also marked the year that American dissidents overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and began the process to usher it into US governance in 1898. The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 brought two new spheres of influence under the eagle's wing: the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico) and the Philippines (Guam, Philippine Islands). The latter lead to a war between American troops and Filipino freedom fighters that ended with the Philippines becoming an unincorporated American territory in 1902.

With a full-up nation and overseas aspirations, the United States came of age. No longer a frontier to be settled, many turned their attention to the question of what America was going to become and its readiness to ascend to the same echelon as the great European powers. That the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing should coincide with America's social and psychological upheaval was providential for the organizers of the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago. The committee was eager to apply the medium of the world's fair to the assertion of America's emergence into national maturity (or adolescence), creating a gleaming white beacon of American optimism and exceptionalism on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Thomas Moran, Chicago World's Fair.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad

Undoubtedly the most famous of Mark Twain's works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two novels show Twain at the peak of satirical and storytelling prowess, using an identical cast of characters to tell widely divergent stories.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, follows the life of the miscreant of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the shores of the mighty Mississippi River. In this otherwise sleepy town, the eponymous character gets into mischief and becomes embroiled in a murder plot. In the process, he comes to represent everything about rural life in America... The bygone age when children were allowed to explore, get dirty, hurt themselves, and run free on the wild outskirts of the village, fettered only by their own imaginations. This life, lived as recently as 30 years ago, seems to have dissipated under the weight of electronic devices and helicopter parents. To call it a "simpler time" would be a misnomer. Sawyer and his ladyfriend Becky Thatcher do find themselves chased through caverns by a murderer after all. It was a more fearless time, and thus seems more simple. Getting scuffed up was part of childhood. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in 1885. The Gilded Age romps of Sawyer, for as much murder and mayhem as they involved, were traded in for a sincere examination of life in the American South with all its harsh, squalid, unromantic realities. Quite early on, for instance, the reader is revolted by the horrible situation that the return of Huck's father puts him in. A barbaric man, he punishes the boy for "putting on airs" by being taught to read and proceeds to try and weasel Huck's trustfund (a legacy of the reward in the previous novel) as his "right" he is justly owed. No wonder Huck fakes his death and runs off with Jim, the escaped slave. As an unlearned, rural vagabond, Huck becomes Twain's "wild man" voice of satirical innocence.

Through the eyes of two social outsiders – Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores not only the Mississippi’s shoreline but the American zeitgeist in a manner that is still shockingly relevant today. Huck and Jim are left to navigate the eternally turbulent waters where morality, race, politics, religion, economics, slavery, and the lingering fallout of the Civil War intersect. In American literature and the American mind, geography and psychology blend together. Pursuit of the frontier drove Americans westward and skyward, hitching up Conestoga wagons and revving up Harley-Davidsons, and in doing so shaped who Americans are. The fundamental form of American literature is the road trip… The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and the first truly American novel is a trip on one of America’s first natural roads. Twain’s Mississippi is a geographic artery reaching into America’s metaphorical heart. Where it flows is sometimes quite ugly, and needs airing out. 

A further ten years later, Twain took a true flight of fancy with Tom Sawyer Abroad. Rather than reflecting on the realities of life in America, he instead wrote up a parody of Vernian Scientific Romances and dime novel Edisonades. The author takes Tom, Huck and Jim and throws them in with a mad inventor who takes them aloft in his dirigible. One can tell from this short novella and its follow-up Tom Sawyer, Detective that the gas had gone out of Sawyer and Finn for their author. Nevertheless, it does provide him with a few good moments of good-natured fun to poke at the genre.